On Mister Rogers’ 84th birthday, how he inspired my love of reality television

If Mister Rogers were still alive, he’d be 84 today. As far as I’m concerned, he is still alive. Watch episodes of his show and there he is, the same as always, looking at the camera and talking to me.

He might be talking to you, too, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just the two of us, and the cast of his on-screen neighbors. That’s the way a lot of people feel, and the subject of a new documentary, Mister Rogers & Me, which is now on DVD, available on iTunes, and airing on PBS stations this week and month. Directed by brothers Benjamin Wagner and Christofer Wagner, and it features conversations with people who knew him and seeks to understand his legacy and influence.

I’m looking forward to watching it, but I don’t need a documentary to explain that. I live it every day, because Mister Rogers was directly responsible for my love of reality television.

On one episode, he revealed things behind the scenes of his show. It blew my mind: the model of the neighborhood, the Neighborhood of Make Believe set (which I later visited), everything. And it made me want to understand its reality, and why I was so connected to something so constructed.

I can’t recall the chronology, but when I was pretty young, I was deeply scarred by fiction because I was convinced it was real, and despite strong efforts by my dad, I don’t think I really understood until Mister Rogers showed me–using TV to deconstruct TV, which was pretty amazing. I never looked at television or media in the same way after that.

Reading Mary Elizabeth Williams’ awesome essay about Mister Rogers reminds us that Fred Rogers got into television because, as he said, he “hated it so”–hated its content, that is. In the documentary’s trailer, there’s a clip of Mister Rogers saying, “If there’s anything that bothers me, it’s one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad.”

It makes me mad, too, but in my journalism, writing, and especially my short-form writing–blogging and tweeting–I sometimes wonder if I’m demeaning another person instead of following Mister Rogers’ lead. I’ve always tried to focus my criticism on people’s behavior, never on who they are, but I’m certainly not following in Mister Rogers’ precise footsteps.

I’m also reminded as I read about him and watch clips that back then, he was a friend to a scared, insecure little kid, one who learned to build up those insecurities into walls and later use them to his advantage through humor. If life was full of more Mister Rogers types, would I have written some of the things I have?

Would Mister Rogers would be disappointed in me? I never met him and he never knew who I was, but we were friends. And he did say he liked me for me, flaws and all. Thanks for that, Mister Rogers–for inspiring my work and for valuing me even though you didn’t know me. I’ll do my best to do the same to other people.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.